Owner Jennifer Freese at Franklin Bros. Market. Photo: Alix Wall

Jennifer Freese has lived on Bancroft Way, west of San Pablo Avenue, since 1998. And, like many in the neighborhood, she came to rely on Franklin Bros. Market, on the corner of Bancroft and Seventh Street, especially when she was in a pinch.

The store was never much to look at. The windows were boarded up with plywood, and it made most of its profits as many corner markets do — selling cheap beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets.

Freese used to suggest to Franklin Bros.’ previous owners that they spruce it up a bit, but they never listened. And she’d joke with them: “When you retire, I’m going to buy your store and fix it up.”

So, when they decided to sell the business after 40 years, it wasn’t surprising that they gave first dibs to Freese. And after giving it some thought, Freese, who formerly worked for arts-related nonprofits, realized a job ambition she never knew she had.

Franklin Bros. Market. Photo: Alix Wall
The revamped exterior of Franklin Bros. Market in West Berkeley. Photo: Alix Wall

“I love corner stores,” she said. “I wish there were more of them, so it was a selfish thing to do. I realized I still want a corner store across the street from my house.”

Freese bought it with a friend, Brian Wright, in September 2014.

Wright operated it as it was for the first year or so. Then, last fall, they closed for a few months to make renovations.

They found the original Franklin Bros. sign underneath the plywood and rot, cleaned it up and began using it again. (A visit to the Berkeley Historical Society showed nothing about who owned the place before 1964, so they know little about the original Franklins).

While Franklin Bros. now carries organic produce and $5 chocolate bars, it has remained true to its roots. Sure, the cheap beer section has shrunk to make way for an array of microbrews and an international selection of wines, but at least it is still there.

Produce at Franklin Bros. Market. Photo: Alix Wall
Produce at Franklin Bros. Market. Photo: Alix Wall

Freese said that it’s been a bit of a learning curve getting a handle on what, exactly, the neighborhood wants. “The neighborhood is really diverse,” she said, noting there are low-income apartment buildings as well as homes selling for way over $1 million.

One longtime regular still comes in for his regular bottle of Colt 45 and others pay with EBT food stamps. (All EBT users get a 10% discount.) “We have the customers who want us to sell pastured eggs, and then we have those who ask, ‘Do you have regular mayonnaise that’s not organic and doesn’t cost $6?’” Freese said. “We want to have something for everyone, so we’re still really trying to figure out the right product mix.”

Cans of Dinty Moore stew, Campbell’s Soup, Cup o’ Noodles and Top Ramen packets are next to the Amy’s Organic Soups. Oscar Mayer ham slices are on the shelf, as is Applewood Farms uncured bacon. Kraft singles of American cheese are sold alongside Belfiore fresh ricotta.

Freese also stocks Mary’s Organic chicken and is opening an account with Marin Sun Farms to sell small amounts of beef.

Produce at Franklin Bros. Market. Photo: Alix Wall
Produce at Franklin Bros. Market. Photo: Alix Wall

She admits that’s she’s not organized enough to shop for a week’s worth of dinners, so it’s important for her to stock enough variety so that someone can stop in after work and find enough at the market to whip something up for dinner.

“I’ve been doing all my shopping at the store as a test to figure out what’s missing,” Freese said. Early on, she wanted to make tacos, but they didn’t have cilantro or green onions, so she started carrying them. “I’ve put together some really good meals from the store, like Thai coconut chicken soup or really good udon noodles in a stir-fry. There are lots of good options.”

Franklin Bros. Market received a grant from the city of Berkeley as part of its pilot run of the Healthy Corner Store Project, a national program to improve healthy options at markets like this one.

Though Freese and Wright intended to stock fresh produce before they got the grant money, it did help pay for a refrigerator case, and Freese regularly shares data with the project consultant.

All of that fresh produce comes from the supplier Veritable Vegetable.

Pastries at Franklin Bros. Market. Photo: Alix Wall
Pastries from Hopkins Street Bakery at Franklin Bros. Market. Photo: Alix Wall

Also in the agenda? Support other local — hyperlocal — businesses, some of which are located within just a few blocks of the store. Think Jittery John’s cold brew coffee and pastries from Hopkins Street Bakery. The shop’s fresh coffee comes from Bicycle and Catahoula, and frozen pizzas and dough from Passione Pizza.

They also carry Acme bread, fresh flowers and every flavor of Its-It, the Bay Area-made chocolate-covered ice-cream cookie sandwich.

When talking to Freese it’s really evident that in addition to running a business, she likes the sense of community-building the market offers the owners. They are getting to know their neighbors more than ever before, and in addition to their names, they learn their shopping preferences. It’s not just kettle corn that she carries — it’s “Grace’s Kettle Corn.

“When people request something, I get it for them,” she said. “Someone came in asking for Tazo chai tea, so I ordered it that day. I really just want to sell what people want to buy.”

Quiche at Franklin Bros. Market. Photo: Alix Wall
Quiche from Richmond’s Café Grand Milan at Franklin Bros. Market. Franklin Bros. always stocks both a meat and a vegetarian quiche. Photo: Alix Wall
Quiche from Richmond’s Café Grand Milan at Franklin Bros. Market. Franklin Bros. always stocks both a meat and a vegetarian quiche. Photo: Alix Wall

Freese and Wright also wanted to grab-and-go lunch options since there’s not too much offered in the neighborhood. They bring in fresh salads from Patatas, a catering company that is soon to open a restaurant in Emeryville, and sandwiches and quiches from Café Grand Milan in Richmond.

Eventually, Freese wants to start preparing salads in-house. But space is limited — this interview took place while sitting on milk crates outside the store on the sidewalk.

Freese considered it a great day for the store when a guy who lived in the neighborhood came in with a shopping list from his wife. He had walked into Berkeley Bowl on a late Sunday afternoon, and quickly became overwhelmed by the crowds. He left just as fast and made his way to Franklin Bros.

“He got everything on his list except for Go-Gurt and grapes,” said Freese. “I got Go-Gurt tubes in the next week, and he was able to get bananas instead of grapes.”

Franklin Bros. Market is at 901 Bancroft Way (at Seventh Street), Berkeley. The market is holding a reopening celebration June 12 from 1-4 p.m. in conjunction with the Seventh Street Block Party. Connect with Franklin Bros. on Facebook

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Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer. She is contributing editor of J., The Jewish News of Northern California, for which she has a food column and writes other features. In addition to Berkeleyside’s...